Flutterby™! : Blowed up real good

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Blowed up real good

2002-08-30 14:57:41+00 by Pete 2 comments

"Every kid who has put a firecracker under a tin can understands the principle of using high explosives to loft an object into space. What was novel to scientists at Los Alamos [the atomic laboratory in New Mexico] was the idea of using an atomic bomb as propellant. That strategy was the serendipitous result of an experiment that had gone somewhat awry.

"Project Thunderwell was the inspiration of astrophysicist Bob Brownlee, who in the summer of 1957 was faced with the problem of containing underground an explosion, expected to be equivalent to a few hundred tons of dynamite. Brownlee put the bomb at the bottom of a 500-foot vertical tunnel in the Nevada desert, sealing the opening with a four-inch thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds. He knew the lid would be blown off; he didn't know exactly how fast. High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history. Based upon his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth's gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky. 'We never found it. It was gone,' Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later.

"The following October the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, billed as the first man-made object in Earth orbit. Brownlee has never publicly challenged the Soviet's claim. But he has his doubts."

Ok, so it it wouldn't have been in orbit (at least not around Earth), but it's still an appealing story.

[ related topics: Cool Science History Space & Astronomy Pyrotechnics ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-08-30 15:50:58+00 by: petronius

In John McFee's book The Curve of Binding Energy" he tells of Ted Taylor, the world's greatest atom bomb designer. He was involved with Freeman Dyson in Project Orion, an atom bomb-powered spacecraft that could take a large crew to Mars in just weeks.

After the project was canceled, Taylor ended up as an advocate for tighter controls on nuclear mterials, the real subject of the book. By the way, jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven's book Footfall makes use of the concept. When Earth is invaded by space-going intelligent elephants(!)the US builds an Orion ship named Michael to carry our attack to the enemy.

#Comment made: 2002-10-14 04:25:21+00 by: projectorion

Aerospace Imagineering has done a splendid job of conceptualising Michael. Over at the


I just visited the Jerry Pournelle current mail page and coincidentally discovered a reference to Orion.


Also a reference to the Pro-Nuclear Space Movement which I originally founded. Surprising to say the least.


Nuclear power for space doesn't just include fission or fusion bombs. Reactors are currently being developed under the Nasa Nuclear Initiative.

Oct 3, 2002

Source: Spacedaily.


A team of government, industry and academia, under the leadership of The Boeing Company, has been awarded a contract with NASA to develop new nuclear electric power systems for deep space exploration. Responding to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's call to move forward with a "nuclear propulsion initiative," Boeing and a team consisting of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Glenn Research Center, Honeywell, Swales Aerospace, Auburn University and Texas A&M will develop power conversion technologies that enable future reactor electric propulsion missions.

"Our team's proposal was designed to meet the challenge NASA has made to further our exploration of the planets and deep space," said Terry Murphy, division director for Boeing Energy Systems at Boeing's Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power unit.

"This reactor technology would give us a 100-fold increase in power and a 30-fold increase in propulsion efficiency compared to conventional, storable rocket propellants. This means that a mission would take a fraction of the travel time and provide years of scientific discovery."

Wayne Smith (user name: projectorion)